Contemplating a Woman of Consequence: The Sistine Chapel on the Charles
As with many journeys of consequence, this one begins in darkness.
Regrettably, my time with this image of our beautiful Mother must end, and Sargent's Pieta speaks with one parting message: "See what my womb has borne. Eat, my child, and live." Our eyes locked, I nod and note: One cannot pass through her gates without emerging unchanged. She is, after all, a woman of consequence.
Church, by John Singer Sargent
BOSTON, MA (Catholic Online) - As with many journeys of consequence, this one begins in darkness.
Tunneling through the glacial till of Shawmut Peninsula, Boston's subway line from Park Street to Copley Square is the city's oldest. Completed in 1898, it connects the legislative center on Beacon Hill to what was at the time, the city's newly created cultural hub.
Revered institutions encircled the square - institutions such as the Museum of Fine Arts, MIT, Trinity Church - HH Richardson's glorious pile of stained glass and Roxbury puddingstone, the Boston Art Club, and my destination - the Boston Public Library. The first two have since moved from their birthplace, but the others remain, still nobly gracing the square. Emerging from the subway, I look quickly over my shoulder to glance in admiration at the soaring Italianate campanile of the New Old South Church.
Across the street from my momentarily diverted attention is Boston's "palace for the people," its grande dame of architecture, its public library. Designed by Charles McKim and completed in 1895, she comfortably reigns over Copley Square. Well proportioned, handsomely clad, and tastefully ornamented, she is confident but not prideful. From her north facing limestone cornice, she speaks: "The Commonwealth Requires the Education of the People as the Safeguard of Order and Liberty."
The entrance is flanked by two imposing ladies in bronze. Sculpted by Bela Pratt in 1911, Science guards the southern flank and Art the northern. These stately women, robed and hooded, turn their gaze toward but not at those wishing to enter. Sitting upon their respective bronze thrones, their arms are open, a sign of welcome, but their knees are together and angled toward each other, and thus their demeanor suggests that they wish you to admire their trade but do not invite you to engage. As sentries, their efforts are inconsequential.
Nodding as I pass between them, my attempts at making eye contact with the pair are thwarted by their inward focus. They distractedly allow my entry into the building, and I find that this "palace" does not disappoint. I am engulfed in the warm glow of Iowa sandstone; the floor is white Georgia marble inlaid with symbols of the zodiac; and the ceiling is a wonder of mosaic clad domes. A pair of regal (and requisite) lions, sculpted by Saint-Gaudens, beckons bibliophiles upward.
The grand marble staircase is a memorial to the Commonwealth's Civil War infantry regiments, and ascending this noble memorial is a pleasure of motion honoring our veterans well. The memorial completes its ascent at the Puvis de Chavannes Gallery which serves as a foyer to Bates Hall, the library's magnificent reading room, but I'm continuing upward to the 3rd floor which houses special collections.
Ascending again, this time up a dimly lit limestone canyon, I lazily run my fingers along the smooth marble handrail, admiring the craftsmanship and wondering where have all the craftsmen gone; artistry is integral to every facet of this product of public munificence.
A quick glance upward to add confidence to footfall, and I am suddenly brought out of my reverie by the sight of something so unexpected, so utterly anathema to our current cultural norms, so utterly scandalous even to think of attempting in this day and age, and so utterly beautiful.
Mounted in the southern apex of a vast barrel-vaulted hall is the unmistakable form of our Lord upon His cross. Am I really seeing capital-H Him in the Boston Public Library? I have been known to walk into door jambs; could I have stumbled along the way, banging my head on the cold stone stair treads? Wherefore this marriage of the sacred and the profane?
Drawn as we are by His saving form, I hasten to the foot of the discovery, and looking around I find myself surrounded by the history of our faith. A quick lap of the space is all that is needed to discern that the murals are painted as a sequence, and the hand of the artist is readily identified as the distinct style of John Singer Sargent. In art school, I had an unabashed boyish crush on his most famous progeny, Madame X. But this masterpiece was never mentioned during five years of higher education.
Sargent's sequence begins on the wall opposite to my arrival. On the north wall of this veritable Sistine Chapel on the Charles is a depiction of the Israel under Egyptian oppression, pagan gods looming in the vault above. In the frieze below are the Old Testament prophets who, split into two symmetrical groups, provide balance on either side of Moses bearing the Ten Commandments.
The south wall is set up similarly. Our aforementioned Lord and Savior mirrors the figure of Israel on the opposing wall. Behind the Crucifix is ...
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